Monday, June 20, 2011
This post is dedicated to my friend Nathan and his Mum whose passion for truffles seems endless and who own the French Black Truffles of Canberra truffle farm. They allowed me to tag along for some truffle hunting (and digging) in what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable days I've had in a good long while.
As my friends know all too well, I love truffles and have an endless array of truffle salt, truffled risotto, truffle paste etc etc in my pantry (including an apron given to me by the Red Avenger with the slogan "Nobody knows the truffles I've seen" on the front). I don't know what it is about the musky, dark flavour of the truffle that appeals so much. Someone described it to me once as the taste of pheromones but, having gone digging for truffles and sniffed the soil for their sweet scent, I can honestly say that truffles smell like damp earth - yummy earth though! Why this tastes so good to me I don't understand but it definitely appeals.
The day we went digging it was cold but sunny, the best kind of crisp, Canberra winter day. The truffle dogs were out, scenting the air and running with happy, doggy purpose between the rows of French and English oak trees. Every now and again they caught a whiff of the dark, warty fungus and headed for one of the trunks, sniffing at the ground and indicating with a swipe of their paws where a truffle could be found.
That's the point when the human hunters get down on their stomachs and, rather like the dogs, smell the earth. While I am no expert, I was told that what you're looking for is the mild, sweet scent of a ripe truffle, and not the more acetate, sicklier smell of either an under ripe or an over ripe truffle. Then you get out a small trowel and a paint brush - I felt very Indiana Jones - and very gently excavate the truffle. If it feels firm, but not too hard, smells right and gives a little in the earth, you take a very expensive gamble and shuck it out of the soil at the base of the tree.
Once you get them back home, you need to clean off the soil with a good nail brush or a toothbrush, and have a good look at them. Some are not of a high enough quality to be sent to market, others require paring back where the ridges and knobs have created crevices which contain soil that cannot be removed. Finally, the ones which will be delivered to restaurants and providores around town are weighed and ready to go.
This year is shaping up to be a good crop, but it's still early days so I am very much looking forward to going out later in the season when the frosts get heavier and the grade of the truffle even higher. Hopefully Sherry (and Snuffles) will let me visit again soon.
What I love about the people involved with the farm, from Sherry and Nathan to the truffle dog trainers, is their passion for this strange black fungus and their interest in what trees seem to produce more or better truffles, and the intricacies of why that might be the case. It's as much art as science, but as truffle farming develops more of a history in the Canberra region, I am just glad there are people out there pioneering the production of local truffles, so we all get to enjoy them.
Also, how cute is Snuffles, the truffle hunting spaniel?